The Weak Staff presented Squirrel University in the Duderstadt Video Studio as three sketches, each spaced out between acts by other performers. Because the squirrels came on and off stage throughout the night, we developed a degree of omnipresence. We hoped Squirrel University would be less of an act in a variety show as much as it was an ongoing performance that could reappear at any time. In fact, throughout each night of performance there were always two audience members dressed in squirrel costumes that I had convinced to play small roles in our third and final piece. These squirrel volunteers were key infiltrators who blended the boundaries of the space between audience and performer. The show culminates with my arrest as an illegal nut-peddler thanks to one of the audience squirrels who happened to be an undercover cop. The last line of the show is then delivered by the second audience squirrel who gets up from their seat to stand at center stage, self-righteously chastising the nut-peddler in a public decree to the rest of the audience.
“That’s what you get,” they cry. “That’s what you get for spewing vitriol from your gaping maw!” And at that, a thunderclap shakes the studio and lights flash in the final storm.
This ending – in which the performers all exited and were replaced, or “upstaged,” by a member of the audience – served to culminate a playful and campy disruption of the theatrical space.
Zach Kolodziej as the Cockney Squirrel (left) gets taken downtown by Phoebe Wu as the Sheriff Squirrel (right).
Chris Squirrel (left) and Sadie Squirrel (right) begin the Squirrel University Campus Tour.
Julia Gaynor delivers the final line of Squirrel University’s performance in the Duderstadt Video Studio as the “Self-Righteous Squirrel”
Our next performance, in the Stamps Gallery functioned as an experiment in welcoming more non-performers into the world of Squirrel University, and thus converting more of U of M space into a squirrel playground. We occupied the gallery at tables stationed throughout the space where gallery goers could learn about our degree in Human Studies and enroll in a 15-minute undergraduate program. Two squirrels by the front door were instructed to take over the Stamps Gallery reception desk as the Squirrel U “Welcome Center,” and point people in the direction of other parts of “campus”. Another squirrel was stationed at the “Admissions Office” where applicants could go through a quick interview process. If accepted, these applicants were directed to the “Orientation Center” where they would learn about the curriculum and practices of human studies, and complete their own assignments as students in the program.
The design of this space and the interaction within it was necessarily spontaneous in reaction to the gallery environment and limitations. Arriving at the gallery to assess the space I was surprised to see a scene of chaos as art students marked off territory they had claimed for themselves. Mark Nielsen, a member of the gallery staff, admitted to me that any sense of organization had fallen apart amidst a mad rush for space. It became clear to me that Squirrel University was meant for this sort of space: one in which the coexistence of people and work in adjacent territories were already explicitly fragile and contentious.
Notes on supply needs for the Squirrel University Recruitment / Admissions Table
Campus map for Squirrel University using real floor plan on Stamps Gallery provided by Robert Platt.
I decided to radically break the barriers between individually assigned space about half way through opening night when I began removing my squirrel costume and announcing to passersby, “This is all a hoax,” “I can’t stand the pressure any longer!” and “I’m not even a real squirrel!” As I stumbled around lamenting my woes the whole gallery became a stage for my crisis. Unsurprisingly, I was ignored by most people, who preferred to be removed observers of the art rather than engaged actors.
Zach Kolodziej has identity crises, tearing off his costume and claiming, “It’s all a hoax, I’m not even a real squirrel!”
I understood from these reactions that most people are not accustomed to open and flexible space, but to the cordoning off of spaces in separate zones. Our installation satirized the expectation that convoluted bureaucracy should segment space within a university. For instance, we closed the distance associated with education and consumerism by conveniently placing the “admissions office” and “merchandising department” at the same table, so as to streamline one’s purchasing of tuition and school “swag”. Additionally, the admissions table was surrounded by a set of stanchions connected with velvet rope – like at the VIP entrance to a nightclub – and a sign reading “Cue Line Starts Here,” creating an artificial sense of control over the space. Beside the admissions/merchandising table, a set of gym lockers filled with acorns and sheets of paper providing Fluxus-style assignments comprised the “student facilities” of Squirrel University. Verging on absurdity, this representation of the classroom satirized the segmented cubicle-like learning environment that is most common in the university, and which is only counterbalanced by occasional “experiential” or “exploratory” learning.
A potential student interviews at the Admissions Office of Squirrel University
Prospective students examine our merchandise at The S Den.
Experts in various fields of human research staff our Orientation Center at Squirrel University.
Later in the night, the strict regulation of space was explicitly exposed in a series of confrontation with the property manager, Todd Battle of McKinley Inc. Todd Battle first threatened to call the police on the Squirrel University band Acorn Mom, who were playing drums and trombone in the courtyard beside the gallery. After they stopped performing, Spencer Haney, a plainly dressed but affiliated member of Squirrel University, picked up the trombone and began to play. Todd Battle then approached Spencer repeatedly shouting, “Stop!” without ever introducing himself. When Spencer did not cease to play, Todd Battle grabbed the trombone and pulled Spencer onto the ground, and stood over them. In this moment something very raw and scary became explicit. The threat of violence inherent in a system of domination was proven not to be a bluff, but rather the necessary means to the perpetuation of that power. While this was a small example of oppression in a much larger web, I do not believe that it was a coincidence that the representative responsible for maintaining control over private property through the use of force was a cis white man.
Stamps Gallery Director Srimoyee Mitra (right) comes out to speak with Todd Battle (middle) and Spencer Haney (left) after Todd Battle pulled Spencer to the ground.
Despite this disturbing upheaval, we ended the night with resistance by holding the graduation ceremony for Squirrel University “seniors” in the forbidden courtyard. The graduating class, who each gave unprepared speeches to an enthusiastic audience, reclaimed the space. They ranged from peers, to professors, to strangers and children. Sujit Das, a long-time Ann Arborite, organizer, English Scholar and supporter of the DIY art community in town gave a particularly rousing speech:
Not long after Sujit’s speech, Todd Battle reappeared to shut us down, stating, “I don’t want to be ‘that guy’ but you guys can’t be out here.” When asked whether he was shutting down our university he refused to acknowledge the identity of Squirrel University and instead stated that he had no intention of shutting down U of M. To the sounds of boos from the crowd, he declared, “I am the building manager,” and explained how Bar Louie next door was having “a large party” that did not want to be disturbed. Todd Battle then entreated us to move our festivities inside. Unsure if Todd Battle was an actor or the actual building manager, one crowd member asked over the din of noise, “Are you for real?” to which Todd Battle replied, “Yes, I am for real.”
“Friends! Professors! Moms!
We live in uncertain times. Neo-fascism is on the move. Bourgeois excess is excessive. The Meanies are out there! And theres the Greedies! And the Stinkies and the Smellies!
But I know this!
One thing is true: ROMANCE IS ALIVE AND CHANGING”
Leslie Rogers gives a speech at Squirrel University graduation: “I always wanted to know about humans and I didn’t, but now I do.”
Sujit Das gives a speech at Squirrel University graduation.
A young graduate of Squirrel University gives a speech: “I learned a lot.”
Paul Reggentin’s official graduation certificate.
Todd Battle (left) enters the courtyard to break up the ceremony for Squirrel University graduates (right).
Todd Battle (right) explains to the crowd of graduates and supporters that the ceremony must end.
Todd Battle (center) confronts the crowd at Squirrel University’s graduation ceremony.
Ironically, Todd Battle provided the role necessary to orchestrate a perfect ending to our ceremony. He played the part of the “bringer of law and order” perfectly, just as Athena might enact justice at the end of a Greek tragedy, or how a police brigade arrest all of the characters in the final scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yet in this scenario the power dynamic was reversed, and Todd Battle became an infiltrator into the reality of Squirrel University. When he gave his credentials as “building manager” I countered him by declaring myself the Dean of Squirrel University. How else does one maintain their facade of legitimacy?
Or put in simpler terms: Whom will the cops believe? The building manager who says a trombone player trespassed on his property? Or the student he assaulted? Whose claims are more valued?
Who controls space? What power is seen as legitimate? Squirrel University was an experiment in probing these questions. Throughout history, performance has been a way to subvert hierarchy by creating the space for enacting an alternative reality. The greatest joy I felt within this process was from the formation of coalition with my fellow performers and friends. Squirrel University also touched strangers on campus who saw squirrel suited people wandering the Diag or greeting them at a gallery opening. I believe these interactions encouraged many people to recall a sense of imagination and openness that is nurtured less and less as we grow older. In part, the sterility and segmentation of our public spaces directly results in the feeling of tension and unease many experienced when attempting to engage with Squirrel University in a playful way.